THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- The Los Angeles Rams didn't have a draft pick in the first round last year, don't have a pick in the first two rounds this year and won't have a pick in the second round next year. They don't have any money left under the salary cap this offseason, but they do have 15 players -- seven of them current starters -- set to become unrestricted free agents next offseason. They have pushed all their chips to the middle of the table, adding Marcus Peters, Aqib Talib, Ndamukong Suh and, most recently, Brandin Cooks amid a dizzying six-week stretch, mortgaging draft capital and cost certainty for the chance to win it all right now.
But this plan, the Rams believe, is far more sustainable than it appears.
They have the makings of an elite team in 2018, but Rams general manager Les Snead expects that to remain the case in 2019 and 2020, possibly even beyond that. He'll point to three major reasons.
The Rams are getting good value out of the quarterback position. Jared Goff still has three years left on his rookie contract, which serves as the impetus for all of this. He'll cost a combined $16.5 million toward the cap over the next two seasons and won't start making serious money until 2020, when his fifth-year option -- which could be valued at more than $20 million -- kicks in.
No team has more cap space over the next two years than the Rams. OverTheCap.com projects them with close to $100 million in 2019 cap space and close to $170 million in 2020 cap space. Goff is the only player tied to more than $2 million in dead money in 2019. By 2020, only two players -- wide receiver Robert Woods and inside linebacker Mark Barron -- are set to cost more than $5 million toward the cap.
They're still relatively young. The Rams fielded the NFL's youngest roster for five consecutive years, all the way up to the 2017 season, when they were the second-youngest. Two of the players they acquired this offseason, Cooks and Peters, are 25 or younger. So are Goff, Woods, Todd Gurley and Cooper Kupp, their four main skill-position players before Cooks joined them.
The Rams have a history of signing players to front-loaded extensions that allow them to get out of those contracts quickly, and they can do the same to maximize their time while Goff plays at a bargain rate. They'll start with defensive tackle Aaron Donald, safety Lamarcus Joyner and Cooks, three key players separated from unrestricted free agency by only one season. Next year, Peters and Gurley will be in the same scenario.
"We have plenty of space over the next two years to lock up these guys long-term and have this core together," Snead said, "and that’s the goal."
It won't come cheap. Donald is set to become the game's highest-paid defensive player and could command an extension that compares to what the NFL's top quarterbacks make. Cooks can cash in on a receiver market that just saw a couple of less-accomplished players in Sammy Watkins and Allen Robinson net average salaries of $16 million and $14 million, respectively. Joyner plays a less-expensive position, but is set to make $11.29 million under the franchise tag, which provides a high starting point.
The Rams would love to sign at least two of them to contract extensions before the start of training camp.
“In an ideal world, right?" Snead said. "You’d want to do that so you have your franchise [tag] available [next offseason] to keep those three players. But I do think the goal, too, is you should start from the beginning of, ‘We want to get those guys locked up. Let’s try to get something done.’"
Snead won't divulge much about his negotiations with Donald's CAA representatives, saying only that "we continue to have dialogue with his representation" and "the goal is the same -- make Aaron Donald a Ram for a long, long time."
Cooks said after his introductory news conference on Thursday that it would be "an extreme blessing to be here for the long haul," but made no promises. Joyner recently stated his goal was to get a long-term deal done, but also that he is "at a good place" with the franchise tag.
Snead went into the offseason hoping to capitalize on a championship window, but could he have ever imagined getting names like this?
"I would say no."
It was the Kansas City Chiefs who originally reached out to the Rams about Peters. The acquisition of Talib began with media reports tipping Snead off about the Denver Broncos' desire to part with him. The Rams reached out to Suh's agent shortly after he was released by the Miami Dolphins, but didn't initially think they could get him. Cooks was someone the Rams expressed interest in dating back to last year's combine, but they had to part with the No. 23 overall pick to finally acquire him.
Snead is following a similar blueprint to one followed by last year's Philadelphia Eagles, who took advantage of Carson Wentz's cheaper salary and added the likes of Alshon Jeffery, Torrey Smith, LeGarrette Blount, Patrick Robinson and Chris Long.
Maybe the lack of draft capital quickly catches up to the Rams. Maybe they eventually find it too difficult to put good pieces around their star players with such hefty contracts flooding their salary cap. Or maybe they figure it all out, maximizing their opportunity now without mortgaging much in the years that follow.
The Rams understand that nothing is promised -- not even in 2018.
"Guess what: It’s ’18, but we’re still 11 wins behind the ’17 season," Snead said. "Just 'cause we’ve had a flashy 2018 offseason doesn’t mean that we’re any better this year than we were last year, because we’re 11 games behind last year’s team."